as the Lakers sit in the early stages of a long and pivotal offseason, most of the basketball world seems to be aligned in one core belief.
That the Lakers should and will trade Russell Westbrook.
And for good reason. His one season alongside Lebron James and Anthony Davis was an unmitigated disaster, due in no small part to the fact that he rarely was alongside those two. As the one consistently healthy member of the Lakers’ big three, Westbrook became the mistake-a-minute avatar of Lakers failure. By the time it all ended three weeks back, it was clear the team would be better off without Westbrook and vice versa.
Only there are no do-overs in the NBA. Rob Pelinka can’t untrade for Westbrook.
That’s why the Lakers need to seriously consider not trading Westbrook.
Wait, didn’t you just say that this season was a disaster?
And it is.
And that the Lakers would be better off without him?
And it is.
Won’t it be just as bad next year?
Shouldn’t Pelinka do anything and everything to get rid of Westbrook and try to forget this nightmare ever happened?
You’re gonna have to explain that one…
OK, let’s talk offseason game theory. But before we do, please understand that this is less a defense of Westbrook than it is a case for a new way of considering how to untangle this mess. Once the Lakers start to believe Westbrook could be a Laker again next year, the rest of the league will eventually get the idea, too.
And maybe then the Lakers can start to negotiate from a level playing field.
So here’s my question: How good is Pelinka’s poker face?
As long as the Lakers are operating from a position of weakness, Pelinka won’t win any trade involving Westbrook. The point guard is what economists call a distressed asset. Executives around the league size up the Lakers and see a team that is in win-now mode with a 38-year-old LeBron and therefore desperate to change course.
That means other teams might be willing to help solve LA’s Russell Westbrook problem, but only if they can saddle the Lakers with new ones.
The Lakers would have to take on bad contracts, and not just deals that go through next season like Westbrook’s does — assuming he picks up his $47 million player option. Deals that extend two … three … four years. And they’ll want draft picks, too. The Lakers don’t have many, but if you want us to take Westbrook, you’ll cough up those picks.
That would be worth it for the Lakers if the players get back and put them in position to contend for titles for the next several seasons. But how many of those deals exist? How eager are the Lakers to help an opposing team get drunk on $47 million of cap space with a two-draft-pick garnish?
Pelinka isn’t going to be in a position to be choosy, but he can’t accept a bad deal just because he’s afraid LeBron will leave as a free agent if he doesn’t.
Because anything that is good for the basketball will most likely be bad for the long-term business.
The only way for the Lakers to stop digging their hole deeper is to find their way into a position of strength. And the only way they can do that is to convince the rest of the league that they are not as desperate to trade Westbrook as everyone believes. That they are content to bring him back for another season and give their big three another chance.
But isn’t it worth taking on some long-term money if it means winning another championship before LeBron retires? And LeBron said he doesn’t care about draft picks!
To all of that I say, what’s the rush?
The Lakers need to take the emotion out of this. Westbrook can only help his value with the Lakers, and as next season plays out, teams that thought they would be contenders will realize they are n’t and will become more willing to change course. To trade players thought untouchable in the offseason.
New possibilities open up for the Lakers by waiting until the trade deadline, and they might come even sooner than that.
What is the harm in waiting for the Lakers? Not giving LeBron better, more balanced support from the start of the season? Risking Westbrook poisoning the locker room? Setting up a new head coach to fail? These are all questions the Lakers are and should be considering as they build out scenarios for this offseason.
But if the Lakers go into next season with Westbrook on the roster, his value skyrockets and their options explode.
By then, Westbrook’s contract becomes the key asset, and the Lakers suddenly can be selective with whom they take back or, perhaps, can justify keeping Westbrook through the season and benefitting from that cap relief themselves.
Maybe you’re scoring some academic points. But this is the Lakers, and LeBron is never gonna go for it.
Well, this is where communication between Pelinka, LeBron and Klutch Sports is key. Everyone is complicit in the trade for Westbrook. It was a mistake. And it would be unreasonable of James to expect Pelinka to make it just go away.
In this scenario, James, Davis and Westbrook would need to revisit their talks from last summer about sacrifice and making their games work together. Westbrook might have to consider the possibility of coming off the bench.
Westbrook needs to feel the love from the Lakers stars. He made his feelings about him about his role known when he quipped at his exit interview on April 11 that the message from LeBron and AD for him to just be himself on the court “was n’t true.”
Bridges need to be mended, sure.
But there is an incentive on all sides for it to work. Perhaps a new coach with a better rapport with Westbrook can have more luck selling the former All-Star on a reduced role. By his own admission, Westbrook had essentially tuned Frank Vogel out by the time the regular season arrived.
The Lakers could certainly give Westbrook something he hasn’t had for nearly half a decade: stability. They were Westbrook’s fourth team in four years.
And though his presence was a glaring issue for the Lakers last season, it was far from the only one. Injuries were not what separated them from the top of the Western Conference, but without injuries the Lakers certainly would have been a playoff team. And maybe even with James and Davis missing a combined 68 games they could have sneaked into the postseason.
It was the rest of the roster that doomed the Lakers into lottery obscurity, with it taking more than half the season for the recently departed Vogel to find bench players he could trust.
What would the Lakers look like if their three stars were healthy and had capable players around them? We don’t know. We never saw it. Davis, James and Westbrook played just 21 games together.
In a perfect world, that would be all they would get. But this is a complicated mess. And for a franchise whose long-term vision is predicated on being an appealing destination for stars, cap space and flexibility are paramount.
Trading for Westbrook only further limits your flexibility. Another poker term: It restricts their number of outs.
The Lakers were so sure Westbrook could work alongside James and Davis last year, it shouldn’t be that hard for them to talk themselves into it being better the second time around with role players who are actually playable.
Haven’t you heard that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results?
Hey, I didn’t say this was a great situation to be in. I’m just trying to help the Lakers avoid making it even worse.
The Lakers have almost nothing to lose by bringing Westbrook back next season. Is it ideal? Of course not. But tell me what is. Trading him will always be an option. The Lakers need to be unafraid of other teams calling their bluff. Their position can only improve by seeing how their asset, in this case Westbrook and his massive contract from him, matures.
It’s simple economics. See?
Didn’t you get, like, a D in economics at the University of Montana?
Hey, this isn’t about me. And it was pass-fail, thank you very much.
Maybe you’re right. I just can’t stand the thought of watching Westbrook in a Laker uniform anymore.
You’re not alone. In the meantime, give “Winning Time” a try.
(Photo: Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)